This column contains spoilers about the midseason finale for The Nevers. It is now available on HBO Max and HBO.
Joss Whedon’s creation, The Nevers, has been echoed in many of his works, including its patriarchy-fighting superheroines and its self-aware, quippy dialogue. It is reminiscent of past Whedon shows, even if it doesn’t tell the story about steampunk heroes in Victorian England. After completing principal photography for the first six episodes, Whedon quit the series. This was shortly before Ray Fisher’s and Charisma Carpenter’s accusations that Whedon had mistreated them. Whedon became radioactive. His actors were left to promote The Nevers prior to the premiere last month. Many of their interviews contained a promise that the sixth episode would truly wow people.
Whedon-ologists might recall that this was exactly the same approach he took with his actors a dozen years back with the premiere of Dollhouse on Fox. It featured Eliza Dushku playing Echo, a woman whose past memories were erased to allow her to be imprinted with the personality and skills needed for complex jobs for high-paying clients. Everyone agreed that the show’s sixth episode would help bring out the show’s messy premise, which felt like sex trading even though Echo was performing nonsexual tasks. Although it was better than Dollhouse, the episode didn’t resolve all of the series’ narrative problems. It wasn’t until the season finale, “Epitaph One”, that Dollhouse felt like a show with an interesting story.
“Epitaph One” is set in a future where technology from the Dollhouse has spread into the world, causing havoc for everyone. We see glimpses of the show’s journey as two survivors escape the hellscape and take refuge in the Dollhouse offices. The roadmap also shows where the series will be once we return to Echo, our friends, and the present. We are also assured that the creative team is fully aware of the moral rot at its core.
The Neversmidseason final, “True,” plays almost the same card. We don’t open anywhere near the Victorian Age. Instead, we see a future filled with incomprehensible jargon, characters we have never met before, even though Stripe, a soldier played by Claudia Black of Farscape, is carrying herself in a manner that feels familiar. Stripe and her colleague eventually find artifacts from the main era of the show, such as the parasol worn by Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), and it is clear that the connection to the main storyline. The Galanthi are the aliens that gave Penance and other members from “the Touched”, their powers (or “turns”, are called. At some point, the Earth became divided between those who believed that the Galanthi came here to save us and those who believed they were our ruin. The war between these two factions has decimated everything and caused the last Galanthi visitor, Penance, to flee to its home. However, he reached out to Stripe to do something.
The series’ beginnings are then relived, with Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), a humble woman who goes by Molly and works in a small bakery. After an unhappy marriage and several miscarriages, her husband’s death, she decides to end the drama by jumping into Thames. Only this time, we find that Stripe’s mind was in Molly’s body. The Galanthi apparently sent it back to make sure things turn out better.
Although it is a borrowed twist from an old Whedon show, even the body swap is almost like Echo being imprinted by someone else’s memories (*), it works miracles for many of the problems The Nevers have faced this point. This explains why Amalia seems more in touch with the future than her precognitive powers, and why she is such a skilled fighter. It also gives the series a clearer vision of the future and increases the stakes. The episode, written by Jane Espenson (a frequent collaborator of Whedon) and directed by Zetna Fentes, moves quickly through time to catch up to the main story. We learn that Amalia told Penance and Dr. Cousens, Zachary Momoh, about the Galanthi. It ends with Amalia preparing to tell all the other members of their group. This will bring all our heroes together. Secret-keeping on superhero shows is almost always more trouble than it’s worth.
The finale’s best part is the section where Stripe as-Amalia is locked in an insane asylum, still speaking with a North American accent. (Donnelly sounds amazing! It’s almost disappointing that a fellow patient teaches Stripe-as-Amalia how to speak like an Englishwoman.
“Epitaph One” didn’t solve all Dollhouse’s problems. The episode was originally a DVD bonus feature. Early episodes of the next season tried to return to the imprint-inducing Imprint of the Week format. Whedon was told by Fox that there would not be a third season. It wasn’t until then that Whedon began to write exclusively about that future.
Similar to Amalia’s revelation, she reveals that Zephyr Alexis Navine is her true name. However, it’s not possible to untangle the Nevers’ complex story threads or half-written supporting characters. Would anyone be disappointed if the show returns without Hugo Swan, a high-society pimp? Beyond the shock, the show’s renewed focus on Stripe/Molly/Amalia was far more satisfying emotionally than any previous series. Although the future scenes were deliberately confusing, Black’s performance was more engaging than much of what occurred while we bounced around a dozen Victorian-era major characters. The interlude with Molly is a short tragic story. The asylum sequence is the most lively of the six episodes.
Philippa Goslett (Whedon’s successor) can learn from this episode as she continues the series with her collaborators without his involvement. His departure will likely mean that future episodes won’t feel as much like a remixed version of his greatest hits. Stripe is given a second chance by the Galanthi to tell their story. The Nevers has the same. Let’s all hope they both make the most of this chance.